Unreal Nature

July 20, 2015

In Front of Us

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… it insists … on the immediacy of present-tense engagement with the stuff of what is in front of us.

Continuing through Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe (2006):

… It is pragmatic praxis that defends the borders between abstraction and representation, not some theoretical purity of odd lines that can be drawn vigorously. Remember that Pollock talked about self-censorship in his work: whenever he saw anything recognizable emerging, he rubbed it out. One could not comprehend de Kooning’s career — the Women, the early figurations, the recurrent push toward a corporeal art in his sculptures in the 1970s — without understanding that the border between abstraction and representation is not something holy but something labile, permutable, and transgressive …

… the kind of abstraction I am describing in these lectures is never about absolutes but often about nuances.

… Looking at these paintings [using Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman as examples], you will grasp the perversity of my mission to talk about abstraction using reproductions. As I cautioned at the outset of these lectures, the less there is to look at, the more you have to look, the more you have to be in the picture. Perhaps by temperament I am guilty of having been overly attentive to abstraction’s noisy, declarative protagonists. I have surely not paid enough attention to that quarter of contemporary abstraction that is about whispers, innuendo, confidences, exchanged intimately rather than publicly declared. But in part I have done this because, as we have just seen, it is technically difficult to render the quieter art.

References to Ryman and Martin are useful, however, because they demonstrate again that the history of abstraction is not, as popularly conceived, a history of libertinism, a history of playing tennis without a net, of allowing oneself every possible freedom. In fact, quite the opposite! Abstraction is to be seen more as a history of denials, of self-imposed rigors and purposely narrowed concentration. Thus its history is not, as often represented, a line of cumulative gains or cumulative reductions, an inverted pyramidal progression pointing down toward the black square, the ultimate end, the effort to produce the last painting. A better model for abstraction is perhaps the hypertext, where the line between A and B goes out in a million possible and ever more complex directions, where artists along the line from A to B find that A’ or A” is a window opening onto an entire universe.

… purity, absolutes, and barriers are not the issue. Artists such as Marden try to live with the legacies of Pollock as a great abstract artist and Johns as a representative painter by mixing and blending what Pollock and Johns stand for: instinct versus intelligence, commitment versus wariness, immediacy versus reserve, lyricism versus reticence.

… What we have been looking at is pointedly not spiritual and it insists not on empyreans far away but on the immediacy of present-tense engagement with the stuff of what is in front of us. It wants to escape from traditional categories and metaphysics in order to force an engagement with the “thereness” and “thingness” of the work in front of us.

My most recent previous post from Varnedoe’s book is here.




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